The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now have the government’s permission to resume gun violence research, in writing: the massive omnibus spending bill that President Donald Trump signed today clarifies that a 22-year-old ban on using federal funds to advocate or promote gun control doesn’t actually ban research.
While the bill is a step in the right direction, researchers will only believe that the landscape of gun violence research is actually changing when they see money for it in the CDC’s budget. “It’s not bad news — it’s good news,” says Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. “But I’m skeptical that it’s going to really turn things around without some money being made available.”
In 1996, Congress passed what became known as the Dickey Amendment, which banned the use of government funding to advocate for gun control. Congress simultaneously yanked $ 2.6 million of the CDC’s funding — which just so happened to be the amount set aside for gun violence research, according to Science. The move “had a chilling effect,” Swanson says. “Not only on the CDC, but other agencies.”
The omnibus bill that the president signed today could help thaw long-frozen investigations into the public health risks posed by firearms. But John Donohue III, a law professor at Stanford University, can think of two reasons to be wary of the change. One possibility might be that “if the CDC goes anywhere near this, they’ll get their funding cut back by Congress — which could hurt,” he says. Plus, Donohue says, “This could be a ploy to funnel money to some of the fringe researchers whose goal is to promote gun rights.”
So the CDC might be cautious about venturing back into such a politically fraught arena, says Philip Cook, professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University. “There are bound to be political risks,” Cook told The Verge in an email. For example, if CDC-funded research were used to support calls for gun control, “there will be hell to pay with the NRA [the National Rifle Association] and their many friends in Congress,” Cook says. “So my guess is that we will not see such funding any time soon.”
After all, we’ve seen similar efforts to kick-start gun research at the CDC go precisely nowhere in the past, German Lopez reports for Vox. In 2013, shortly after the mass shooting that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Obama directed the CDC to study firearm violence. He requested that Congress fund the program to the tune of $ 10 million — but the Republican-controlled House rejected the budget plan. So the CDC continued to avoid it.
Other agencies filled in the gaps. The National Institutes of Health, for example, have a less restrictive take on the Dickey Amendment than the CDC, and have continued to fund gun violence research according to a news item in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (One explanation for the different interpretations could be that “the size of the NIH budget gives it less reason to be concerned about retaliation by pro-gun members of Congress,” the article says.) The National Institute of Justice also funds this research, and has an open request for funding proposals due in May that aim to investigate firearms violence.
Even now that the CDC has both presidential and congressional permission to re-start gun violence research, there are still major barriers to finding answers, says Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri St. Louis. The Tiahrt Amendments, for example, block the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives from sharing information about firearm trafficking with the public — including researchers, according to the Giffords Law Center, which advocates for gun safety. That’s a big problem for scientists who want to track where the firearms used in crimes are coming from and where they’re going, Rosenfeld says. “For the life of me I can’t understand why anyone would put an obstacle in the way of research that would help us understand and reduce firearm violence,” he says.
Data availability couldimprove thanks to another section of the bill that calls for a funding boost for the National Violent Death Reporting System, or NVDRS, says Sean Gallagher, senior government relations officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Right now, this database collects details about violent deaths from 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Today’s bill proposes providing enough funding that the NVDRS could expand to all 50 states. That will be key to getting a nation-wide picture of who is killed by guns, and under what conditions. “Good data is everything, it’s what researchers need to start and this is going to be it,” Gallagher says. “I was kind of shocked it was in there.”
Still, information like hospitalization data and court records that would also help researchers compare the effects of different gun policies in different states is siloed and hard to access, Swanson says. “Those records actually exist, but it is a byzantine process to try to get agencies to develop data sharing agreements and overcome privacy and turf issues,” Swanson says. So there are still big barriers to understanding the public health risks of guns, he says: “It’s not like all of a sudden a huge brick wall is going to fall down and we’re going to be able to learn all the things that we need to know.”